You would think that after writing about what I got wrong in my predictions last year, I would not be so foolish as to try to make predictions again for the 2019 season. As it turns out, I am that foolish, so here is a list of things I expect to happen in the coming year.
2019 certainly looks very promising for world championship motorcycle racing, in just about every class in both MotoGP and WorldSBK. A range of changes mean the racing should be closer and more competitive. Cutting the MotoGP grid from 24 to 22 bikes, and having the Petronas Yamaha team replace the underfunded Aspar squad, means there are more competitive bikes on the grid.
Ducati will field only GP19s and GP18s, and the GP18 is a much better machine than the GP17. Honda will field three 2019 RC213Vs, and a 2018 bike for Takaaki Nakagami, and the fact that Nakagami was fastest at the Jerez MotoGP test last November suggests that it, too, is good enough to run at the front. Yamaha, likewise, will field three factory-spec bikes, with only rookie Fabio Quartararo on a 2018-spec machine. Suzuki made big steps forward in 2018, and have a more powerful bike for 2019.
It's not just in MotoGP either. In Moto2, the new Triumph engine will change the way riders have to ride the bike, and the introduction of electronics – very limited, but still with more than the old Honda ECU kit had to offer – will give teams more options. Ducati's introduction of the Panigale V4R will make the WorldSBK series a good deal more competitive. And the cream of last year's Moto3 crop moving up to Moto2, to make way for an influx of young talent, will make both classes fascinating and exciting to watch.
So what can we expect from 2019? Here are a few concrete predictions:
1. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss
Unless something truly remarkable happens, Marc Márquez will win another MotoGP title, his sixth in total, and his eighth title in all classes. Normally, when riders are on a roll like he is, winning championship after championship, it is eventually boredom, a desire for new challenges, or injury which puts a stop to them. Injury is something out of Marc Márquez' control (more on that in another story soon), but Márquez is showing no signs of boredom. Unlike Valentino Rossi in 2006, there are no rumors that he is weighing up a switch to F1, and the other factory with the cash to pay Márquez his market value also has a bike which is arguably capable of winning championships.
Why will Márquez win? Honda is done fiddling with the engine, after switching direction of rotation and firing interval (screamer to big bang) in 2016 and 2017. The 2019 engine has more power and more torque, but Márquez was already happy with the basic setup of the engine during testing at Valencia and Jerez. A new air intake, feeding air directly into the airbox instead of being diverted around the front of the tank, seems to have improved the behavior of the formerly feisty RC213V.
So happy are Honda with the new engine that they are switching focus to chassis and suspension. There, too, progress is being made, the bike easier to handle and less demanding of the front tire. Previously, Honda riders have been forced to use the hardest front available, to withstand the pressure generated by braking. But the hardest front tire sacrifices in feel what it gains in stability, and it is much easier to lose the front with the hard. At Valencia and Jerez, Márquez was able to spend much more time on the medium front, gaining feel while taking less risk.
"About the second day, I'm very, very happy, because maybe it was one of the best days of the preseason, the way that we worked," Márquez said after the Jerez test. Ominous words, given how hard he had to work in previous years.
Yet I do not believe that Márquez will win as many races in 2019 as he did last year. Firstly, he is returning from serious surgery on his shoulder, fixing its propensity to pop out at the slightest provocation. The operation was deemed a success, but Márquez is in the middle of rehabilitation, not preparation. He will be fit for Sepang, but he will not be 100%, and probably won't be in peak condition until a few races in.
Secondly, despite the Honda being much better in 2019, there's improvement all across the board. Feedback from Ducati riders was that the Bologna factory has made the GP19 turn a lot better, taking away its biggest weakness. The Suzuki GSX-RR is a much better bike than it was last year, and should be good enough to win now. There is reason for cautious optimism at Yamaha, with the engine much improved, and now possibly fixable with electronics and suspension, and a real focus on the electronics. And if the 2019 Honda RC213V is better than last year's bike, then Márquez has both LCR Honda's Cal Crutchlow and, once he has adapted to the Honda, new teammate Jorge Lorenzo to contend with, both of whom should be capable of beating him on occasion.
Which brings me to my next prediction:
2. Teammate temper tantrums ahoy!
Despite tensions simmering between teammates in 2018, teams mostly managed to keep it under control last year. It was an open secret that Andrea Dovizioso and Jorge Lorenzo could not bear each other's company by the end of the year, but for the most part, their mutual displeasure rarely seeped into the public domain. At Yamaha, Maverick Viñales and Valentino Rossi tried to pull the M1 in different directions, but they did it mostly behind close doors, rather than under the glare of the world's media.
All that is set to change in 2019. The question is, which team will be the first to blow?
My bet is on Yamaha. Maverick Viñales had some strong words to say in 2018, but they were mainly directed at his crew, and at Yamaha. Read between the lines, though, and there was a frustration that Yamaha was listening more to Valentino Rossi than to him. Rossi, meanwhile, has been around the block a few times, and knows that he needs to work on Yamaha, not on his teammate, something which he did from time to time last year.
Yamaha has a choice to make this year: whether to go all in on Maverick Viñales, as the direction of the future, or whether to stick with the experience of Valentino Rossi, and hope that his feedback will work for anyone riding the bike. It is a decision they have been putting off for some time, hoping that the disparity between the feedback of the two will resolve itself. But after a single win in 2018, and being completely out of contention for the title, they can delay no longer. Given that the patience of both riders is wearing thin, whoever loses out – or feels as if he has lost out – is likely to go public with criticism, as keeping it behind closed doors has not helped.
Things won't be much better at Honda. After years of being the de facto number one rider inside the Repsol team – and spending much of his energy in the last two seasons putting pressure on HRC to mold the team and the development process into the shape he wants – Marc Márquez is joined by a rider who expects to be treated as an equal, at the very least. Dani Pedrosa was a consummate team player, never rocking the boat and always deflecting attempts at driving a wedge between himself and Márquez, whatever the provocation by the press. Jorge Lorenzo joined Yamaha against the wishes of Valentino Rossi, and spent seven years sharing a garage with the man regarded as the master of mind games.
Márquez and Lorenzo have a great deal in common. You can make a case for them being the two most talented riders on the grid, and both have the self belief that they deserve to be champions. They both expect to be leaders, and to be listened to without question. But they have very different approaches to racing, which has led them to clash both on the track and off it. Márquez loves the rough and tumble of close quarters battle, while Lorenzo is an adherent to the Casey Stoner school of racing, where passes should only be made cleanly and without disturbing the rider being passed. (Whether both Stoner and Lorenzo stuck religiously to the tenets of their own creed is a question for another day, however.)
At some point, Márquez and Lorenzo are going to clash, as they have done in the past. Lorenzo blamed Marc Márquez for his crash in the first corner at Aragon, and had hard words for him after Argentina. He refused to shake Márquez' hand after they collided in the final corner of Jerez in 2013. Márquez has spoken openly about wanting to beat Lorenzo on equal machinery, the subtext being that he does not believe Lorenzo can compete with him.
How will it happen? There will be a race or a practice session where Marc Márquez runs a little too close to Jorge Lorenzo, or Lorenzo believes Márquez has not left him enough room. A journalist will ask Márquez about the incident, and he will give a flippant answer and laugh the whole incident off, much to Lorenzo's discontent. At that point, the media will blow the whole thing out of proportion, asking questions aimed at provoking further reaction from Márquez and Lorenzo at every opportunity. Honda's usually expert PR team will try to downplay the whole incident, until the same thing happens all over again. Rinse and repeat for the rest of the season, much to the enjoyment of the media and the fans.
3. This is Suzuki's season
I have mentioned this a few times already, but 2019 will be the year Suzuki finally breaks through and becomes a consistent contender. After losing their way in 2017, development of the GSX-RR – helped by excellent feedback and a good sense for the direction needed from test rider Sylvain Guintoli – has made huge strides forward. The 2018 bike started the year off going well, and got better as the season went along, especially once they introduced a new engine after Assen. They ended the year with a grand total of nine podiums, more than enough to lose their status of a concessions team.
Will that hamper them in 2019? It should not. The feedback on the 2019 engine was very positive at Valencia and Jerez, two circuits where power and power delivery are important, so getting the engine right for 2019 should not be a problem. The chassis has always been the GSX-RR's strongest asset, and was not adversely affected by the additional power of the new motor. Even the loss of testing concessions is no real problem: the 2019 schedule leaves very little time for testing in-season, and Sylvain Guintoli has proved himself more than capable of bearing the brunt of the test work.
They also have two intriguing riders. Alex Rins enters his third season fit and healthy, and with the experience of a full season of racing, having missed out on much of his first season in 2017. Joan Mir may be only a rookie, but is incredibly highly rated throughout the paddock. Speak to those who have worked with him, and they make comparisons with Marc Márquez in terms of focus, willingness to learn, and the ability to understand what is going on with a motorcycle. Both riders will be podium regulars. Both riders should be capable of winning.
4. Prepare for departure
With MotoGP as competitive as it is, the real winners are the fans. Multiple riders on multiple brands battling for wins week in, week out. But where there are winners, there are also losers. Though Dorna have done all they can to create a more level playing field, pulling six manufacturers into MotoGP, it has also made it harder to succeed. The level of financial commitment required to compete in MotoGP means that factories have to convince themselves that they are capable of winning it. The trouble is, of course, that only one rider, and therefore one factory, can win the title every year. Second place is just first loser, as the movie Talladega Nights so memorably put it.
Of course, even if winning a championship is the ultimate aim, consistently scoring race wins and podiums is enough to justify continued participation in MotoGP. But what if even podiums are too much to ask for? That is the question which will be creeping into the minds of senior executives at both KTM and Aprilia this season. How long can they keep racing if the success they aim for doesn't arrive?
Right now, things look worse for KTM. Pol Espargaro finished 17th at the Jerez MotoGP test in November, nearly two seconds off the pace. That is not where the Austrian factory had intended to be as they enter their third year in MotoGP. But from the start, KTM have made it clear that this is a long-term project, with a budget of €250 million spread over five years. CEO Stefan Pierer has publicly committed himself to that strategy, and so there is less pressure on the project to deliver immediate success. Having four bikes on the grid and Johann Zarco joining the factory team should help accelerate progress. But if KTM finish the Jerez test in November 2019 in 17th place, questions will start to be asked.
The pressure would appear to be greater at Aprilia. The Noale factory has already appointed a new head of Aprilia Racing in Massimo Rivola, taken from Ferrari, leaving Romano Albesiano to concentrate on technical development. They have the experience of Aleix Espargaro, and now have the Italian rider they have desired for so long in Andrea Iannone. Iannone is a MotoGP race winner, and Espargaro has been more competitive on the Aprilia RS-GP than anyone had any right to expect.
But these organizational moves are a sign that patience (and with it, money) is running out at Aprilia, and at parent company Piaggio. Though the Aprilia is not that far away from being genuinely competitive, the hurdles to success the RS-GP faces have gotten much, much bigger this year. A better Honda means there could be three, maybe even for RC213Vs ahead of Iannone and Espargaro. Three GP19s and three GP18s will leave six Ducatis between Aprilia and success. Three factory-spec Yamahas, with proven talent aboard them, will be a tough mountain to climb. And if Suzuki with Alex Rins and Joan Mir are as good as many expect, that would mean even more bikes to beat.
Inevitably, if Aprilia remain stuck outside the top five, and KTM are resolutely kept outside the top ten, then questions will be asked. And when questions are asked, tongues will begin to wag, either on or off the record. Six manufacturers in MotoGP may be one too many. The factories all have contracts with Dorna which run through the 2020 season. But if a factory is going to withdraw, then 2019 will be the year in which they will start to give serious consideration to the idea.
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